Pilates Plus

Nordic walking is the way forward

By Jane Alexander | The Telegraph | 12th February 2009 | Original article

The sun is glancing through the trees, sending splinters of gold onto the snowy path ahead. A buzzard mews above us and a rustle in the undergrowth explodes into a snowstorm as a group of hinds skitter away. We stop to savour the moment before walking swiftly and almost effortlessly up a steep hill. This is Nordic walking - a superb way to get fit and enjoy the countryside, particularly when icy weather makes the going slippery.

Nordic walking developed from cross-country skiing and is pretty much a way of life in the skiing parts of the Continent. Here in the UK we have been dragging our poles a little but the recent cold weather should nudge us into action. There's really no excuse as there are more than 500 instructors around the UK. Not only is it a great workout but Nordic walking takes exercise right out into the countryside: it's the ultimate green (and white) gym.

"We lead our walkers along the spectacular Pembrokeshire Coast Path, along razor-cut clifftops, windswept headlands and deserted beach coves," says Andrew Dugmore of Nordic Walking West Wales. "We catch glimpses of choughs and guillemots and seal pups waiting on their mothers' catch. We begin to appreciate our marvellous open landscape."

Gill Stewart of Nordic Walking UK frequently hears tales of the unexpected. "As well as the usual stories about how good people feel or how much weight they've lost, we also receive emails about the adder people spotted, or the rutting stags and even one incident where a group came across a chap who had been chased and trapped by a herd of cows. It certainly beats the monotony of the treadmill."

You can explore beautiful beaches in Norfolk, walk through peaceful forests in Hampshire or climb stern mountains in Scotland. On Exmoor, Angela Bidlake teaches walkers about the deer and ponies while over the border in Devon, Elaine Sylvester will guide you through the wild landscape of Dartmoor.

Hills, mountains and moors might sound daunting but Nordic poles make even tough and slippery terrain manageable. "Nordic walking makes people feel lighter on their feet," explains Stewart. "The propulsion provided by the poles means they can actually walk faster and further than they usually would. They also provide stability which is why Nordic walking is proving useful for GP referral schemes and cardiac rehabilitation."

Andrew Dugmore agrees, adding that, "Suddenly, with a pole in each hand, we almost become quadrupeds, which brings distinct advantages for balance."

You walk using two thin but incredibly strong poles. Unlike normal hiking sticks (which you stab ahead of you), Nordic walking poles should never be placed in front of you - instead you push back on the poles as you walk, rotating your shoulders and hips. The poles act as levers to give you a springy lengthened stride. It takes a little getting used to but there's a wonderful sense of liberation when it starts to come together. Almost imperceptibly your stride lengthens into a long easy lope and your whole body seems to loosen up.

In Germany and Switzerland, health insurers subsidise and give discounts to Nordic walkers, recognising its huge health benefits.

Not only does it build stamina and aerobic capacity but it also improves upper and lower body strength and boosts mood (US research has shown a marked decrease in mood swings, anger and depression among Nordic walkers).

"Nordic walking can help with strength and stability," adds Bidlake, "particularly after hip and knee operations. It's a low-impact weight-bearing exercise so it can help combat osteoporosis and some people have used it to help build shoulder muscle after breast cancer operations."

There's no doubt that it's a fabulous all-round workout. Once you feel confident with the basic technique and have built up your fitness you can up the ante and learn more advanced techniques, using the poles to give your arms a serious workout (goodbye flabby triceps) and achieve even greater fitness levels.

Stewart is keen to point out that, while a beautiful backdrop is the icing on the cake, many instructors work in quite urban areas too. "Often people are shocked at how much fantastic green space there is in their locality," she says. "Nordic walking takes people into areas they typically thought were only for dog lovers and sporty types. In Hertfordshire there are projects to get the over-45s more active, and in Watford the Asian Elders Luncheon Club will be starting regular walks later this month."

So, if you want to get fit and see more of the countryside (despite the weather), get into pole position.